In Britain, Cities Feed Cities


Mark Cullen reflects on a tour of Devon and Cornish gardens that he took with his daughter Heather recently.

Is it just me, or do you see the beauty in a well planned and well kept food garden?

As Canadian enthusiasm for local food increases so does our interest in growing our own. Fruits, berries, vegetables and of course herbs are all taking their place at the front and centre of the garden. In many cases we are integrating our food plants with the ornamentals and in other cases we are planting in containers to make them much more accessible.

What the British Can Teach Us

If growing food on your balcony, rooftop or in your yard interests you I have no doubt that you will be interested in what the British have to teach us.  During my recent tour of great public British gardens with my daughter Heather we discovered some nifty techniques for food gardening that I would like to share.

Herbs off the ground

In many instances the ‘herb garden’ is not a garden as we think of it but a series of raised beds. This provides a number of advantages including

Accessibility:

no more crouching down to ground level to meet the sage (or thyme or parsley). The sage is brought closer to you. I am always in favour of convenience, especially where food plants are concerned as the household cook is often in a hurry, with something boiling on the stove, when the need for some herbs arises.

Space:

Perhaps it goes without saying but the space required to grow your food is greatly reduced when you use the vertical space available to you. I remind you that the vertical space in your garden or balcony is free. Or, put another way, you paid for it so why not use it?

Screening a view:

Peas or cucumbers growing up netting look cool, are great discussion starters and can screen out an unsightly view.

Training 

We plant an apple or pear tree in the middle of the yard and there it sits, hopefully producing fruit.  Truth is most fruit bearing trees produce their best offerings every second year.  If I was to tell you how to grow 5 to 10 times the number of fruit trees in the same space as you would normally use to grow one, would you be interested?

A number of years ago I visited the gardens of Claude Monet at Giverny.  There he trained dwarf apple trees (note: DWARF) along a fence.  They looked very cool and the crop was maximized in the least amount of space.  I came home and did the same thing along a 70 metre (200 ft) stretch of my vegetable garden.  6 years later I can tell you that the amount of fruit it produces is astounding.  And it is the area of the garden most commented on by visitors (“you did WHAT?”).

Fact is, this is very easy to do.  It takes some planning and some pruning but the maintenance is not what you would think.  It takes me about 10 minutes a year to prune each of my 24 espalier/fenced apples. 

We saw wonderful examples of this at Rosemoor Garden in Devon (Royal Horticultural Society) www.rhs.org.uk/WhatsOn/Gardens/rosemoor/index.asp and the Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall www.Heligan.com.

Go ahead; train a dwarf pear or apple at 45 degrees against a brick wall or a free standing structure.  Have fun with it.

Vermin proof your garden

It is astonishing the extent to which British gardeners go to avoid the interference of rabbits, birds and the like.  Berry bushes are completely covered with plastic bird netting; metre high fences are built around carrots and lettuce and anchored with pegs to prevent rabbits from digging under them.  Most secure of all, I suppose, is the use of greenhouses to grow in.  There is nothing much safer than a shut door at night to keep out the raccoons.

Start early/play late

It seems odd to me that here in Canada where we experience a much shorter growing season than in Britain and yet the use of greenhouses and cold frames has just not caught on with main stream Canadian gardeners.
An inexpensive cold frame allows the gardener to sow seeds of frost hardy plants like peas, lettuce, broccoli and kale much earlier. Also, come August we can sow again for a fresh crop of the cold hardy veggies to harvest in October, November and early December.

I could not help but notice that in Britain every public veggie and fruit garden employs cold frames and greenhouses for this purpose.  Many allotment gardens do as well.  Clearly the idea of season extension is not a new one in Britain.

Once again, a trip to some of the great gardens of Britain has opened my eyes to new possibilities.  I will be assembling my new greenhouse later this summer.  I will stake and support more of my produce, build more containers for our herbs and generally just get more serious about the whole thing.  As a Canadian food gardener I have some catching up to do.

A short list of the ‘veggie’ gardens that we visited includes:
Rosemoor Garden in North Devon. www.rhs.org.uk/WhatsOn/Gardens/rosemoor/index.asp

The Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall. www.heligan.com

Kew Gardens, London www.kew.org

From prior trips I can highly recommend:
Wisley Gardens, Surrey www.rhs.org.uk/gardens/wisley

Garden Organic, Coventry www.gardenorganic.org.uk/gardens/ryton.php

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